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Delicate and heartfelt portrait of a songwriter by his lover
Blaze is an affectionately told story of songwriter Blaze Foley from the perspective of his wife, who wrote a memoir about him and co-wrote the screenplay with Ethan Hawke. As a result it is very personal, intimate and delicate, especially the love that Blaze and Sybil share. Their time together in the treehouse in the forest, when Blaze begins to write songs, when he conceives his public name, is very much about the opening of two human hearts and though Blaze talks about wanting to be a legend, there are no legends being depicted here just genuine feeling beings learning to express the delicate and precious parts of themselves. Sybil encourages Blaze to share his songs with the world and so they venture out of their intimate paradise.
The world is a bit harder and meaner and Blaze and his crew of singer-songwriters, including Townes Van Sandt, drink excessively. The film certainly does not take a moralistic view of this, but the damage it does to them and their interaction with the world is obvious. Ben Dickey as Blaze is an extremely nuanced and heartfelt performance. He loves with all of himself and he even hides his gifts with the same passion.
There are not many recordings of Blaze in existence, and it is the love of his friends that allows anything of the man's music to have survived. If the film communicates anything above the very moving and involving human drama, it suggests patience, respect and compassion for those on stage trying to communicate something with us that is complex, delicate and precious. Our world would be unliveable if people like Blaze did not risk their vulnerability to share their most gentle delicate parts with us. The attempted record company execs who tried to build a label around him didn't get it, though they must have recognised his talent. The audience didn't seem to get it, reacting to his anger and his defensiveness more than his music, but his friends did, and his lover certainly did. And so have the filmmakers, who offer us this delicate portrait in a way that can't be misunderstood, only felt.
Upload your consciousness
This short film explores themes of death, digital immersion, leaving behind the physical and specifically uploading your consciousness to the internet. It encompasses musical sequences, television clips, dream-like scenes and surrealism. While it is full of interesting ideas and images it lacks a cohesive vision, it is difficult to engage with and it doesn't amount to anything.
Blue Planet II (2017)
Extraordinarily filmed, structurally incoherent
Undeniably it is extraordinarily filmed, as clear as looking through a window, into a world we would otherwise have no access to; but structurally it is totally incoherent. It goes from one subject to another in a manner so distracted it seems to be made for those with no attention span. It's inability to focus means we come away having learned nothing. Imagine the power of this work if the effort that was made to get such amazing footage was actually developed into a cohesive narrative about the natural world, its beauty and splendor, and our impact upon it. As it is, it amounts to a collection of arcane facts. What an amazingly wasted opportunity.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018)
Powerful poetic portrait of an island
ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS confronts the impossible situation of the refugee detention centre set up by the Australian government on Christmas Island. It is illegal for any employee of the centre to talk about or report anything about the conditions there. So rather than reportage about all the facts and all the horrors, the filmmaker has chosen instead to make a portrait of the island itself, using metaphor to convey the reality of the detention centre.
It is migration time for the island's red crabs and they are everywhere, most inconveniently on the road, and roadblocks must be set up to protect the crabs from being squashed. I suppose it is natural for beings to migrate in certain conditions.
The local Chinese people, who were the first humans to arrive in the Island 100 years ago, believe there are ghosts on the island who are in between worlds, people who have died but not yet passed on. They burn regular offerings to the ghosts to placate them and help them pass on.
The main character of the film is a sensitive and sympathetic woman who works on the Island as a trauma councilor, guiding the patients gently through the immense pain and confusion of what they have experienced and what they are being forced to live. The sessions with her patients are very moving and her love for them bleeds through into her family life, as the realisation of her powerlessness overwhelms her against the secrecy and bureaucracy of the institution that has no interest in helping these people.
Somehow all this is not depressing. It's delicacy and integrity is such that we must have hope that those concerned will realise that humans are as important as crabs and ghosts.
Once Bitten (1985)
Unfunny vampire-as-sexual-deviant morality tale
Not only is it rarely funny, but the vampire thing seems to be a metaphor for some sort of morality tale about sexual deviance. Mark is infected with vampirism when he leaves his girlfriend to go looking for sex elsewhere, and his only chance of salvation is monogamy. They also throw in a little homophobia for emphasis.
Only notable as an early JIm Carrey film, where he gets to try out his formula of charm and rubber-facedness.
Sexy, funny and ridiculous
A sci-fi sex comedy that starts off great - sexy, funny, feather-light - and then it starts getting weird, weirder, less funny, unfunny, until it goes off the rails completely. Like Gregg Araki's other movies, he does comedy well and sci-fi badly.
Dog's Best Friend (2017)
Loving dogs even when they're difficult
DOG'S BEST FRIEND is a very heartfelt portrait of a man's love for dogs, and his lifetime commitment to rehabilitating them and allowing them to rehabilitate him, and each other.
Jacob and Jennah, with a baby on the way, have had traumatic pasts, but they have created a sanctuary of healing with many dogs. Jacob works tirelessly with the dogs for the betterment of every being involved. The love he shares with the canines is very moving and the methods he uses to rehabilitate them and keep them calm and happy is very instructive.
A small but very genuine film radiant with love for dogs and their unflagging commitment to making us happy.
Repugnant people behaving repugnantly
This is a film about people who use violence to mask their pain and shame, but the characters are so undeveloped and unconvincing that it is difficult to have any sympathy for them. With such hollow characters the tenderness is empty and the extreme violence is merely a completely unpleasant and unnecessary assault on the senses.
The establishment of a new urban marae in Porirua
Young Maori from Nga Tamatoa travel to Tokomaru Bay to help paint and care for the Tokomaru meeting house, built between 1928 and 1934. For some Tamatoa members, this is their first marae experience. The documentary moves to Porirua, where a new marae is being established. Prior to its establishment, local Maori recall the past reality of life in rural communities such as Tokomaru Bay and Waima Valley and the concept of marae, as traditionally understood, is set against the terms of the new urban present. As diverse Pakeha - and Pacific Island community networks attempt to form links with the marae, real questions are raised about the nature of identity and the possibility of a 'multicultural' future.
Bill Gosden, New Zealand International Film Festival (reprinted with permission)
This is a studio outtake, a version of the song that was abandoned by Bob Dylan for the superior version he included on Blonde On Blonde. It has been released 50 years later because Sony Music do not want unreleased Bob Dylan recordings to enter the public domain. Many of these "bootleg" releases are great treasures, but mostly it is just an attempt by Sony to milk Bob Dylan's popularity for all it is worth, and Bob is clearly beyond caring.
The video itself is a meaningless set of advertising-like images with only the most superficial and incoherent relationship to the song and to each other. It is basically an advertisement for the album release and has zero artistic intention or integrity in itself.
To read more into it than perhaps is appropriate, it can be seen as an attempt, inadvertent maybe, to render powerless the incredibly powerful artistry of Dylan's mid-'60s music, by releasing all of the outtakes and dregs and failed attempts to capture the brilliance that has surprised and delighted many people over the last 50 years, and to juxtapose that music with images that suggest a vacuous simulacrum of the world that the song emerged from and that it represents and reminds us of. Basically, turning great art into hollow artifice.
It is a sign of the incredible strength and integrity of Bob Dylan's work that it survives the shameless looting Sony Music has subjected it to over the last 20 years.
Smiley Face (2007)
This film is not remotely funny.
This film is not remotely funny. The main character is really stoned, she acts like a complete moron (and I mean complete) and she ruins everything she touches. It certainly deglamorizes cannabis use, while at the same time relishing in it. The only problem with the film, and it is a major problem, an overwhelming one even, is that there is nothing about it that it is funny. There are no jokes, there is no wit, nothing amusing or surprising happens; she's just really really stoned and stupid. That's it. I guess you can consider that a spoiler.
I only watched this cos Gregg Araki's early films are wonderful obscene punk queer anomalies. I had faith in him. He let me down. He let us all down.
Man of Steel (2013)
I grew up with the Superman movies of 1978-1983. I may feel differently about them if I watched them now, but at the time they were gospels for a secular age, epic stories of good news in which we are saved from death by a superior being from space.
Were these films really better than Zack Snyder's noisy and ridiculous Man of Steel? There was perhaps some charm in the characters, particularly Christopher Reeve's awkward Clark Kent. But there was one element that rendered those films transcendent, and that was the music of John Williams. Regardless of the artistic integrity of his compositions, his music has an undeniable power to lift a movie into a mythical realm that we humans find ourselves swept up into. One of Williams's techniques is the theme song, introduced at the beginning, woven delicately through the bulk of the film and then exploding upon the viewer in the exciting climax. It not only accelerates the urgency of the film's climax, but it brings the heart. Everything that is important to protect in the world is projected onto that music, and when we hear it thundering at the climax, at that crucial moment, in our hearts we know it will be okay. The careers of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could not have happened without John Williams. He is the master of manipulation.
Man of Steel is said to be the Superman story of our age, of the 21st century, our time of utmost scepticism and cynicism. In Zack Snyder's film the score is indistinguishable from the sound effects and I could sum it up in one word, noise.
While there is an attempt to expand upon the story and the world by fully incorporating the destruction of Krypton and bringing its spiralling failed technocracy down to threaten Earth, the film spends most of its 143 minutes in noisy destruction that can barely even be called violence and that I would call silly if it wasn't so humourless. Sometimes statistics can be helpful, and it would be a sufficient film review if someone performed the simple but laborious task of calculating the percentage of the film's running time depicting a few almost invincible beings punching each other, banging into each other and just generally smashing their own and each other's bodies into as much human infrastructure as possible, resulting in the spectacularly banal destruction of first Smallville and its familiar chain stores and then New York and its skyscrapers. Things get smashed and crumble into dust. If that's your thing, you've found the right movie.
This type of violence cannot be considered dangerous or irresponsible, it is simply senseless and tedious. It is like an incoherent fascist ballet of utter abstraction, with bodies flying, falling and colliding. I suppose some people like this type of audio-visual stimulation. I can only assume they find it exciting, though I'm not sure what's exciting about it when there is no sense of coherent danger. It is noise. It is as gratuitous as any porn film. If it is the Superman film for our age, it is because, short of the character and plot sophistication of a Christopher Nolan film, it is more noise than you have ever experienced before, and in faster succession, and for longer; more smashes, more bangs, more whacks. A more appropriate comparison than The Dark Knight films would be the Batman TV series of the 1960s with its "Crash!" "Boff!" "Bang!" fight scenes. Those words are replaced by extremely complex computer graphics, but the experience is ultimately the same. Like any good porn film, the scenario that justifies the action is quickly swept aside for prolonged sequences of bodies pounding against each other.
Regarding the plot, Krypton was destroyed by inept committees, but the film adamantly rejects fascism. The military coup led by General Zod understandably wants to save the people of Krypton at any cost, even the genocidal colonisation of Earth. The benevolent line of Jor-El and Kal-El (Clark Kent) prefer instead to preserve truth, justice and the American way, by fighting fascist-inspired colonisation with the support of huge amounts of ammunition courtesy of the American government. And the Americans keep firing their guns, even though their enemies are totally impervious to them. Having justified the prolonged sequences of noisy destruction, the second objective of the plot is to create the hope and desire for a sequel, and you can bet $250,000,000 there is a sequel.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Violence without insight
The film's brutal and noble depiction of American slavery being unjust seemingly makes the film impervious to criticism. I happen to agree that slavery is an abomination, but I don't think that is a question being discussed in America or the world at the moment. As far as I know, it is a question that has been answered already. But the Academy can't help but pat themselves on the back because they have, for the first time, given their Best Picture award to a film written and directed by black filmmakers. Instead of feeling proud, I may instead wonder why they haven't been giving awards to filmmakers of diversity all these years. I suppose they are an American institution and they focus on American films and films that engage with the American sensibility. In this case they have chosen to acknowledge an issue which has largely been sorted in the American cultural mind.
I suppose it is a long process rewriting history to include the stories of the marginalised. This is a process that needs to happen, and for many people this is a process that needs to happen in large-scale accessible films that will be seen by many. Thus the film has its place.
However, the film doesn't offer any depth into the situation. There is no insight achieved into how this could happen, what toxic ideologies justified this culture on a political or a personal level. There was no attempt to place this man's experience into any large context at all. It was merely a depiction of the nobility of waiting for justice. For 12 years he worked as a slave and barely dared confront the legal injustice of his situation, let alone the moral injustice of it. He nobly waited for 12 years and eventually justice was done and he was able to return home to his family.
Titles at the end of the film not only tell us that the kidnappers were not brought to justice, but that the protagonist's salvation was extremely anomalous. Most free black people sold into slavery illegally were never freed. But that is not an inspiring story of overcoming adversity. That is a more accurate rewriting of American history to include the stories of marginalised, but not one that reinforces American values of waiting for things to get better, waiting for justice to have an opportunity to be done.
The violence of this film did not offer us a rewarding and insightful commentary on the grotesque cultural and political landscape of America that allowed slavery to flourish for so long.
The Trip (1967)
Inaccurate and humourless
Less a depiction of the experience of taking acid than an example of the sort of film you might make if you are on acid throughout the writing, shooting and editing process. This really is a humourless montage of meaningless associations and trippy images that you would need to be deeply and thoroughly acculturated to appreciate.
Staring at a flower or a centipede for an hour will be a closer simulation of an acid experience.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Noir tribute or noir satire?
A private investigator with a love of vice is drawn into a dark and convoluted world of crime and corruption through his love of a woman who used to be his girlfriend. Some sort of modern noir, absolutely brand new in its candid depiction of everything the original noirs only hinted at, but also delighting in the ridiculous tropes of the genre. Leading us in directions we didn't expect and don't necessarily understand, the connections pile up like the ash of a joint and at the end we are left a little dazed and confused.
The Neglected Miracle (1985)
A poetic, fearful vision of undefended paradise
When The Neglected Miracle premiered at the Wellington Film Festival in 1985 few of us knew about the dangers of corporate "ownership" of genetic crop resources. John O'Shea and Barry Barclay, on the other hand, had already been working on the subject for seven years, shooting in Peru, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand. Their film is cannily structured around interviews with peasant farmers who've preserved and nurtured their corn and potatoes for generations and whose closeness to the land is lyrically photographed and evoked in traditional song. The First- World scientists and businessmen who appear in the film - most of them Dutch - are much more forthright than their 21st-century successors as they uphold their rights to treat these resources as intellectual property. This ground breaking film remains deeply impressive for its cogent argument - which, by today's standards, is almost subliminal in its lack of sound-bite stridency - and its poetic, fearful vision of undefended paradise. - Bill Gosden, New Zealand International Film Festival (reprinted with permission)
Autumn Fires (1977)
In Search of Pākehātanga
Actor Martyn Sanderson returns at 39 to the Hokianga of his youth and visits his elderly and romantic aunt, Olive Bracey. Their reminiscences mesh with nostalgic songs - "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life!" - and readings from Bracey's unpublished fiction. Rory O'Shea's lyrical cinematography lends its own poetry. This beautiful, layered film is all that came of a series to be called In Search of Pākehātanga proposed by Pacific Films after the success of Tangata Whenua. "It was metaphor created at a time when it was still possible to make metaphors in documentary in this country", Barclay recalled. But an era of more aggressive television was close at hand and he left the country soon after for nearly five years.
Bill Gosden, New Zealand International Film Festival (reprinted with permission)
Sensitive and evocative documentary portrait of a magical summer
Opononi became the focus of national attention in 1955 thanks to a famously friendly dolphin. Seventeen years later, working with writer James McNeish, Barry Barclay visits Opononi and gently but tellingly probes the legend of that magical summer and the mystery of its violent end. - Bill Gosden, NZIFF (reprinted with permission)
Screened in 2009 as part of a Barry Barclay retrospective at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
This retrospective made explicit that Barry Barclay, working before Aotearoa contained anything resembling a film industry, made some of the most gentle and rich films ever produced here. Often neglected, they are a rich resource as cultural artifacts and as works of art.
A crude and antisocial response to love
I knew nothing about this film and believed, while watching it, that it was really a documentary made by the protagonist. Upon discovering that it was actually made by a filmmaker, I become rather confused as to its intentions. Why is the film so crudely and unimaginatively shot?
I guess my belief in it as a documentary is a credit to the performances. And specifically not a credit to the production, which did look like it was made by the talentless and obsessive protagonist.
The story is one of an antisocial and self-obsessed young man, Doc, who focuses his attention on the image of a go-go dancer he has never met, Go, concocts a plan to "get" him and succeeds. Upon discovering that he is a real person, kind, intelligent and loving, Doc withdraws and blames Go for his own fear and superficiality.
Why would we want to follow such a morally and emotionally lacking protagonist through a film he has made in his own image, where he seeks a sexy ass, discovers a sexy person, and then hysterically justifies his rejection of real emotion and affection.
Fight Club (1999)
The anti-anti-corporate film
Fight Club (1999) is considered a cult classic by those who praise it for its brutal critique of the meaninglessness of modern urban life. It is condemned as "irresponsible" by some critics who claim that it advocates violence. I claim that both of these positions reveal a total lack of insight into what the film is actually saying, and an unwillingness or inability to read the text of the film as a whole.
It seems that all criticism of the film focuses only on the first half. The first half depicts a man living a consumerist lifestyle in an anonymous American city who meets a powerful man who inspires him to make radical changes in his life, primarily through all-male meetings of consensual bloody violence called Fight Clubs. The debate about whether violence is a legitimate response to a suffocating culture of submission is a legitimate one, but not one that will ever be meaningfully discussed in mainstream media. State institutions have a monopoly on violence. End of debate.
The film is stylishly designed, charmingly performed and its philosophy is quotable, the only problem is the second half, in which Fight Club becomes Project Mayhem. The second half appears to be nonsensical but a rather cynical message can be drawn from it. Whether the destruction of credit card companies to erase personal debt without loss of human life is a legitimate response to capitalism is not a debate the film encourages. These men are not depicted as free-thinking radicals liberated from wage slavery, but as a mindless army blindly following the orders of their deified leader.
Maybe the anarchists, activists and eccentrics are feeling validated by Twentieth Century Fox for offering them entertainment that presses the alienated buttons they have been sullenly nurturing and so resist a critical examination of their beloved product. The revelation that the two main characters are actually the same person is merely dismissed as bad plotting, but is much more self-aware and manipulative.
There is a tiny clue to the true "twist" in the film. There is a comment in the narration that we hear but do not understand, and so forget. This is an effective method of subliminal messaging that is demonstrated in the film by Brad Pitt's character inserting single frames of pornography into children's films. "It's called a change-over. The movie goes on and nobody has any idea." Everyone knows that different genres are designed to induce different feelings in an audience; horror movies scare, comedies make you laugh and thrillers thrill. Fight Club starts off as social commentary, designed to make you think, and moves into thriller, designed to cease thought by getting you excited. Most thrillers have completely inane utilitarian plots. I worry about thrillers that have actually raised serious and complex issues.
The hero of the film, who has spouted all this quotable philosophy, is completely insane. It seems the story so far has been an episode of acute dissociative schizophrenia and if you are on the protagonist's side you will stay on his side as he wakes up from this episode, realises that he is Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, and attempts to stop the progress of the destruction he has instigated – blowing up the credit card companies – because it is obviously wrong.
The film successfully negates everything of interest that has been presented, and does it all in the mindless thriller genre, so the cult followers of the film can remain willfully ignorant to how they have been manipulated.
When the protagonist realises that he is unable to stop the destruction of the credit card companies, he decides to kill himself. He shoots himself in the mouth, both killing himself (Brad Pitt) and not killing himself (Edward Norton). He has thus liberated himself from the man who liberated him and so is now free to watch the destruction of the buildings he tried to save.
For the first half of the film we are Edward Norton and our minds and lives are opened up by Brad Pitt. The second half of the film then reveals that Brad Pitt is a lunatic who must be stopped and that actually he is a part of us, he is an aspect of ourselves that we must destroy. We enjoy the destruction vicariously through this film, we buy the DVD and maybe even the t-shirt. Our inner anarchist is stimulated, excited and finally subdued; put back to sleep for another decade of employment, consumption and the thought-provoking philosophy of Hollywood studios.
Total Eclipse (1995)
A tame depiction of love, sex, violence and poetry
A film that fails to live up to the provocative brazen confidence of the lives it depicts. DiCaprio manages to capture the arrogance of Rimbaud, but he has no opportunity to slide his youthful body into the intensity of Rimbaud's raw genius. Instead the filmmakers fetishise DiCaprio's body and his precocious pretense. They filmmakers suggest that Rimbaud has no care for love, sex or violence, taking them or leaving them with little thought, but they shy away from any sensuality or depth in their depiction of these perversely human tendencies. 150 years after the events they are depicting, the filmmakers, scandalised as they are with the bent of their material, are somewhat embarrassed about diving into the implications either visually or emotionally. Nothing is explained, the legend is barely depicted. This film is no excuse for other filmmakers to not deal with the material themselves.
Six Feet Under (2001)
The ambiguity of life
Six Feet Under is the greatest achievement of HBO, the studio currently producing the best television in the English language in the world.
Unlike any other show I've ever seen it deals with the real problems of life: love, death, purpose, and portrays life in all its sadness, happiness, humour and ambiguity. It deals with life's delusions, the relationships that make life worthwhile, the dreams and hallucinations that are beautiful and funny examples of what goes on in our head than never really gets portrayed on screen.
Having seen all five seasons of this show the characters to me are so real I could expect to travel to L.A. and find the Fisher and Diaz funeral home, knock on the door and be welcomed in by David. These people to me are real, I love them, they are like my own family.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
The Pursuit of Capitalysm
"Happiness" is equated with being a successful capitalist. The film is as narrow-minded as its protagonist. Why is life so extraordinarily difficult? This is is not explored. Are there other alternatives to the life he has chosen? Not at all. Will Smith's performance is the only thing holding this tacky film together. He is a two-dimensional man in a one-dimensional world. Remove the cohesion of his performance and the film becomes a series of set-pieces on overcoming adversity. The film is called The Pursuit of Happiness when what he is actually pursuing is a job, which in the film brings him nothing but misery and difficulty. The misspelling of "happyness" comes from a mural on his son's kindergarten wall. Ironically, the only thing resembling "happyness" in the film is the man's relationship with his son, which is strong and intimate throughout, not something he really needs to pursue. Are the filmmakers aware of this irony? It seems unlikely, considering the film's thesis is: work incomprehensibly hard and maybe you will get a job in which you have to work equally hard for the rest of your life. The perfect anti-capitalist weapon for those able to stand outside of the film's emotional manipulation. For those who buy the emotion wholesale, they are given no reason to do other than continue their pursuit of happiness without actually being able to enjoy it. Because life doesn't have a "happily ever after".